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Your People Are Your Only Competitive Advantage

The world is filled with good products and good companies. So it becomes very difficult to distinguish yourself in the marketplace by merely advertising your quality products or efficient service. Just about everybody else can make that same claim.

According to Michael E. Porter, a distinguished business school professor, “People are the only source of competitive advantage left to us today”.

Your People Are Your Only Competitive Advantage

That means you had better get the 'people' stuff right if you're going to be an exceptional company that makes a decent profit. Dennis Kravetz documented that in his book called The Human Resources Revolution. In a survey of 150 companies, Kravetz measured the degree to which companies had adopted a progressive human resource approach and its effect on the bottom line.

His conclusion? "There's a positive correlation between an emphasis on human resources and STELLAR sales and growth".

Richard Sloma even took it a step further. In his book, The Turnaround Manager's Handbook, Sloma proclaimed unequivocally, "People are a firm's most important asset. If you have an excellent product but only mediocre people, the results will be only mediocre".

Porter, Kravetz, and Sloma are exactly right. To thrive as an organisation, or even survive in today’s challenging economy, you must create an organisation where people want to come, want to stay, and actually deliver their very best. Here are three ways you can do that:

1. Train, train, train your people

In the past, the expectation of lifetime job security and a juicy benefits package ensured a certain degree of employee loyalty and motivation. But the world changed. The generations changed. And the old, traditional motivators of job security and money are not as effective as they used to be, and in many cases, they don't even exist anymore.

So what does work? What ensures employee retention and motivation? According to several studies, great training is at or near the top of the list of 21st century motivators.

As Penelope Trunk, a newspaper columnist, put it, "If you teach someone skills to run their own company, they are more likely to stay longer at your company. The new workplace currency is training and skill building, and that's what makes young people stay in your job".

Of course, some companies will challenge that assertion. They'll ask, "What if I train my people and they leave?" I always tell them that's possible. But then I ask them, "How much worse would it be if you didn't train your employees and they stay?"

That being the case, I would encourage you to look at the training that is going on inside and outside your organisation. Ask yourself a few questions.

Does your organisation offer training to all of its employees? Or does it only train the people in leadership roles, assuming that the learning they get will somehow trickle down to everyone else in the organisation? Research has proven that that approach doesn’t work very well.

Does your organisation offer training that is primarily technical or only job-specific? Research has also proven that it works much better if the training you provide applies to both the professional and personal lives of your employees.

Indeed, that’s been the secret to my speaking and training over the years. People love it because they say, “I can use what I learned at your program on the job and at home.” And they say, “Wow, my company must really care about me because they’re investing in me, the whole me, not just the job I perform. This is a place I want to work”.

2. Get personal with your personnel

The training advocated above may engage people’s minds (which is a part of bringing out their very best), it also works to touch your people in a much more personal way. I often tell my clients, "People will not warm to your words if you don't appeal to their hearts".

One way to do that is to help your employees blend their on-the-job duties with their off-the-job interests. For example, I remember a manager who supervised a security guard who had a passion for conservation. The manager knew it was the guard's responsibility to patrol the facility while scrutinising the lighting and the entrances. But now, on every round the guard is charged with turning off unneeded lights and making sure doors prevent drafts as well as illegal entries. The guard loved his new job description, and the company is not only secure but saves on heating and cooling.

Another way to do that is to encourage your people to engage in outside interests that fuel their energy and creativity. That may include encouraging your people to take their vacations and to stop working night after night or every weekend. After all, a burned-out employee is seldom your most creative, effective, or even motivated employee. Encourage your people to get out into the world and into their families and experience more of that.

Then take it one step further in terms of getting personal with your personnel. Carve out a few minutes at work once in a while where your employees can talk about their outside interests at work. You’ll be amazed at what you learn about and from these people. You can even ask people to share something they learned outside the job that is helping or will help them on the job.

3. Tune in and respect the negative feelings of your people

All too often, supervisors, managers and leaders don’t want to hear the complaints and negative feelings that may be festering among their people. I can understand that. It’s not fun. But it’s also dangerous to cut yourself off from that feedback.

Sam Gellerman talked about that in Motivation in the Real World: The Art of Getting Extra Effort from Everyone. He described one executive who addressed a group of field managers, outlining a major cost-reduction campaign he had personally engineered. He detailed cost cut after cost cut.

When he finished, a company veteran risked responding honestly by saying, "Sir, you may be pushing this cost-cutting business too far. People are saying their workload is getting too big. They don't have enough time to do the job right anymore".

The executive exploded, "D--n it! That's a bunch of cr_p! Every one of these cuts is absolutely justified! Nobody's workload is too heavy. Those are just lazy people making lame excuses. I don't want to hear any more of that nonsense! Do I make myself clear?"

He had indeed and he got his wish. After that, none of the field managers passed on reports about the rising tide of resentment in the field force.

About a year later, the executive was flabbergasted when hundreds of employees signed a petition demanding union representation. As Gellerman pointed out, "The executive had cut himself off from feedback, which is something no manager in his or her right mind should ever do. It is about as smart as standing on your own oxygen tube."

Instead, if you want to retain your people and bring out the best in your people, you need to encourage your people to share their feelings. And when they do share those feelings, you’ve got to respect (not necessarily agree with) those feelings. If someone says they're frustrated with all the changes in the company, you can say, "Sounds pretty reasonable to me. Who wouldn't be frustrated with the amount of change we're going through?"

Author Credits

Dr Alan Zimmerman is a full-time professional speaker and trainer in the areas of leadership, communication, attitude, relationships, and work-life balance. He has given more than 3000 programs to more than a million people in 49 states and 22 countries. Dr. Zimmerman is a CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) and a CPAE (Speaker Hall of Fame). Learn more, https://www.drzimmerman.com.

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